This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Abak Hussain.
Abak Hussain was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he still lives. A journalist by trade, he is currently the Editor of Editorial and Op-Ed at Dhaka Tribune, a leading English language daily, where he worked since the newspaper’s inception back in 2012. He writes a weekly column — “Hard Target” — mostly on political issues. His other interest is creative writing — he has published short stories from time to time, and hopes to one day finish his novel.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I was working on some of my fiction when a colleague at my newspaper mentioned there was a writers retreat taking place in Reykjavik, and I should look into it. I was fascinated by list of people involved, including Booker shortlister Chigozie Obioma whose novel The Fisherman I had just purchased, so I applied!
Have you ever applied for the Alumni Award before?
Yes, I applied for the 2019 session. I was shortlisted, but didn’t win this award. I applied again and got it for this year. It feels amazing.
Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?
Not this kind of retreat, nothing nearly as exciting as IWR. I have, though, participated in Dhaka Lit Fest as one of the title sponsors, and have attended small workshops. Meeting writers and listening to them talk is always enriching, I always come back with a sharper vision of what I want to do with my writing, and a renewed sense of discipline.
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
Meeting all the participants, who come from such diverse backgrounds. Some very interesting things are born when ideas come together. I am also looking forward to an environment of freedom and tolerance in ideas which I simply don’t have in Bangladesh. For us, every day is a battle to bring out our newspaper, but this is made possible through an open exchange of ideas with other countries. The freedom of movement in Europe is a wonderful thing, and not for nothing do the Nordic countries have such an incredibly high standard of living. I want to soak in some of those philosophies, bring them back with me, and see how they can interact with my own country’s context.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
Reading continuously, reading anything and everything, reading things that challenge me, make me uncomfortable, or seem foreign. For inspiration in writing, I draw on Chinua Achebe, Goethe, Nietzsche, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee, Rabindranath Tagore, and Aravind Adiga. And films, politics, and of course, life.
How has writing influenced your life?
Writing, right now, is my job, but in a broader sense it is also my calling — although I would like to do more of fiction writing than the kind of political opinion writing I do for work. It is because of my writing that, perhaps, I still live in Bangladesh, because for me all the main stories are here. Most of them are untold. I have made sacrifices to my lifestyle because I believe my time is best spent focusing on writing. This has meant forgoing other possible lines of work. I have no regrets.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
Many of the challenges right now are political. I am working on a novel that deals with extra-judicial imprisonments in Bangladesh, and the broken system of how order is enforced bypassing due process. I need to figure out how to tell this story, how to disguise the names of key characters, and how far I can go. Maybe things would be different if I were from somewhere else, like Canada. But then it is possible I would not have these stories which are the reason that I write.
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
Writing can sometimes be a lonely journey, as a story brews in our minds which no one on the outside can see. We struggle for days to bring that story to the page, writing and re-writing, and I think it is important, to sometimes break this isolation and find a sense of community. This is why things like literary festivals and writer’s workshops are so important, therapeutic, and beneficial to the art form — to us as not only writers, but as human beings. This is why the IWR plays such a valuable role in the world, and I am so happy to have been selected for this year’s event.
The prestigious Alumni Award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 29 to May 3, 2020 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received hundreds of applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high.